Kara Walker: Prince McVeigh and the Turner Blasphemies & The Book of Hours
On ViewSikkema Jenkins & Co.
October 29 – December 18, 2021
In a conversation between artist Kara Walker and Studio Museum Director Thelma Golden at The New Yorker Festival this fall, Walker described how drawing was a lifeline amid the tragedy and heartbreak during the COVID-19 lockdown, the murder of George Floyd, and the subsequent protests and cultural upheaval. The very act of sitting at a table with basic drawing materials and putting her faith in the constancy of line helped to sustain her. Installed in the first of the two back galleries of Sikkema Jenkins are several suites of modestly scaled drawings from the series “Book of Hours.” Referencing medieval Christian books of hours, the drawings on view reinforce the primacy of privacy. Viewers bear witness to the outpouring of stream-of-conscious thoughts, feelings, and reactions that Walker channels through line and liquid media onto paper.
The show continues behind a curtain with a 12-minute, cut-paper, shadow puppet video that graphically illustrates the ongoing legacy of white supremacist violence in America that, concealed for decades in full view, flagrantly exploded onto center stage during the previous presidency. Expanding on vocabulary and strategies in her practice that, since 1994, has conveyed the perniciousness of this country’s brutal racist history and exposed its perpetuation into the present, Walker, here, invokes a more recent past with Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the 1998 murder of James Byrd, Jr. The exhibition title also references The Turner Diaries (1978), a frightening novel about a race war and eventual mass extermination of all non-white peoples across the world that has been cited as having inspired contemporary, far-right extremists including McVeigh himself and many of those involved with the January 6 Capitol insurrection—an event reenacted in Walker’s video.
Before the COVID lockdown, Walker executed several monumental projects that catapulted her celebrity beyond the art world where her panoramic murals of black cut-paper silhouettes have been the subject of much acclaim and some criticism. In the wake of these titanic achievements, the global pandemic, and personal/cultural upheavals, the smaller scale of Prince McVeigh and the Turner Blasphemies & The Book of Hours seems fitting. Tuning out the world and its expectations of her from Black and white audiences alike, Walker turned inward and drew. Exorcisms of an active heart and mind, the drawings range from single female figures suggestive of the artist quietly asserting her existence as a Black woman in the world to more painterly “finished” works such as Family Group (2021), where an aggressive male figure with a mask-like visage stares menacingly at the viewer while protectively clutching his woman’s shoulder as she cradles a hybrid animal-child in her arms. The drawings are largely monochromatic with some notable exceptions; all are remarkable in their sense of ease and expressive use of line, gesture, and empty space. A particularly resonant drawing from Book of Hours (2020) (2020) of a large sleeping figure is rendered minimally with line and diaphanous wash. A curious procession of tiny blue figures to the side seems to personify the voices and thoughts from inside the head (the artist’s?) that broke free during its dream. But then it seems more likely that the “dude-like” characters attacked the figure who is unconscious or dead, not sleeping, a scenario suggested by the pooling of dark liquid medium on the head.
While viewers gaze at the drawings, a mix of marching band, ragtime, soul, and rock music spills out of the next room beckoning viewers inside to a choreographed sequence of images, lines, movements, and sounds. The ghostly traces of the artist’s nimble hands onscreen, together with the music expressively scored by Minneapolis-based musician and artist Lady Midnight, activate the elements of a non-linear narrative that is simultaneously past, present, and future. The saga begins in a landscape with stars and a tree—recurring images throughout the video that are, at once, omens of tragedy and signs of grace. A distraught Black woman in 19th-century garb, men with white features in tragicomic struggle for domination over hybrid, female-animal creatures with Black attributes, a serpent fading into a phantasmagoric image of Trump and back again, a torch-wielding skeleton, a Black woman nursing a boy, armed white men engaged in gun battles, and rolling heads and limbs—are amongst the repeated images that continually morph and reconfigure. A vignette with a photo cutout of a truck and a hooded Klan figure who ropes and ties a Black man to it, dragging him through an allegorical landscape until his head and limbs fall off, refers to the murder of James Byrd, Jr. It segues into iconic photos of the Oklahoma City bombing, the US Capitol building, and the burnt out, David Koresh-led Branch Davidian cult compound in Waco, Texas. As Walker weaves these recent incidents of domestic terrorism into her chronicle of racist violence, the saga progresses towards a mythical climax that conflates the story with the process of its making. Pistol in hand, the 19th-century Black woman seizes control of her space: it is subsumed in a frenzy of line that, in turn, sets off a swirling reverie of figures and stars that toggle between mortal struggles and strobe-lit, abstract, cut-paper compositions. In a fleeting moment of whiteness—heaven, perhaps—a Black girl grabs two stars from the sky. Prevailing over her white male pursuers, she returns the stars to the sky, and the previously cut paper out of which the story was constructed returns to whole. Until the next time.